Ram Caspi, outside counsel to attorneys for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, arrives at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem on October 2 for the beginning of Netanyahu’s pre-indictment hearings. (Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images)

Netanyahu’s Lawyers Make Last Stand against Criminal Indictment

Meetings at justice ministry come as prime minister vainly tries to piece together ruling coalition

Attorneys for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have begun a series of meetings with the country’s attorney-general and senior prosecutors in a last-ditch attempt to avoid indictments in three corruption cases.

One of the cases involves alleged breach of public trust, fraud and bribery. According to the charge sheet, Netanyahu was seeking to influence a web-based news site whose owner was seeking more lenient regulations that would save him hundreds of millions of dollars that otherwise would go to state coffers.

The second case involves alleged efforts by the prime minister to win more favorable coverage from one of the country’s most popular newspapers. The third case is more scintillating, involving lavish gifts of cigars for Netanyahu and pink champagne for his wife. The newspaper case carries a charge of breach of public trust, while the so-called Cigar Affair carries charges of both breach of public trust and fraud.

The meetings at the Justice Ministry, which are scheduled to continue into next week, are part of a process called a pre-indictment hearing, which is akin to a grand jury in that it basically tells the prosecution whether or not the case is worth bringing to trial, even if a decision in principle has already been made.

“What we are seeing today is a public figure, a very important public figure, who was investigated by the police,” Emanuel Gross, professor emeritus of criminal law at the University of Haifa, told The Media Line.

“In such cases, the police do not investigate alone,” Gross said. “They are guided by representatives of the attorney-general who advise them on how to conduct the investigation. Because we are dealing with a very important public figure, the attorney-general wants to make sure the police follow all the rules.”

At the end of the investigatory process, the police either recommend that an indictment be handed down or that the case be closed. There were originally four cases against Netanyahu, but the police have recommended indictments for him in only three. In February, the attorney-general concurred and released the charge sheet.

“Now,” said Gross, “the prime minister’s attorneys are trying to convince the attorney-general that he is wrong, and talk him out of the indictments.”

Nadav Blum, a Jerusalem attorney and former prosecutor, told The Media Line that pre-indictment hearings, which are reserved solely for serious criminal cases involving public figures, serve another purpose as well.

“These figures have a high profile, and merely being brought to trial could harm them in ways that cannot be rectified – even with an acquittal,” he said. “So they want to prevent it before it happens.”

Blum added that harm could involve more than a person’s reputation. It could mean, for example, a lost job.

“If you are acquitted, it could be too late,” he said. You can’t roll the wheel back.”

But a pre-indictment hearing can be a double-edged sword for the defense.

“The defense knows the prosecution’s case well before the trial,” Blum said, referring to the charge sheet. “The defense doesn’t show its own cards until the trial, after the prosecution has already rested its case. At a pre-indictment hearing, however, the defense reveals its cards, giving the prosecution a chance to patch up its case.”

Whatever the risks, Netanyahu’s lawyers claim they have evidence that will change the attorney-general’s mind. It has happened before.

In 2012, then-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman was set to be indicted for fraud, breach of trust, money laundering and witness tampering in connection with numerous business transactions.

“His lawyers were successful in convincing the prosecution that two of the accusations were baseless,” Gross said of Liberman, who was tried only for fraud and breach of trust, and then acquitted.

“If you’re looking for a precedent of a successful pre-indictment hearing, that is an example,” the retired professor said. “His wasn’t the first, and it probably won’t be the last.”

Ironically, Liberman is now a political adversary of Netanyahu, who has been trying to establish a governing coalition following last month’s snap election.

The election’s outcome left Netanyahu short of partners who could give him the right-wing government he wants. Liberman, a staunch right-winger, refuses to join a coalition that includes the country’s ultra-Orthodox parties, a key element of the right-wing bloc.

Netanyahu’s second choice, a national unity government that includes Blue and White, a centrist alliance of parties, is proving just as difficult. That’s because his potential partner, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, continues to say he won’t sit in a government with someone facing indictment.

The attorney-general said he’ll decide whether or not to indict Netanyahu by early December.

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